Last week the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee decided it is possible to consolidate three high schools into two. They have yet to determine which school should be transitioned to a junior high, a decision that could come as early as their meeting tomorrow.
The committee has toured the three high schools, examined student population projections and looked at classroom utilization. The final pieces of the puzzle, increased transportation needs and financial impact, were presented to the Committee Thursday.
When Transportation Manager Steven O’Haire and Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci presented their respective reports, the difference between transitioning Warwick Veterans Memorial or Pilgrim to a junior high boiled down to two buses.
Neither O’Haire or Ferrucci presented any scenario in which Toll Gate High School nor Winman Junior High School experienced any closure, further confirming the feeling that those two schools would not be touched during this consolidation.
According to O’Haire, to transport would-be Pilgrim students to Vets or Toll Gate High School and former Gorton and Aldrich students to Pilgrim, would require 16 additional buses. In the instance of a Vets closure and transition to junior high, would require 14 buses. According to Ferrucci’s report, that is an additional cost of $1,124,000 versus $988,000.
Ferrucci’s report on the fiscal impact boiled down to a savings of $4.3 million in a Vets closure situation versus $4.4 million in the instance of a Pilgrim closure. The only difference is transportation costs.
“Consolidating a high school, which high school building you close and where you send the students, the numbers of teachers have to follow the kids. The number of custodians, the number of support people that are in those buildings are similar, so we would end up saving one way or the other. They all turn out to be about the same,” said Ferrucci.
To create his report on transportation needs, O’Haire used changes to the feeder elementary schools to determine where students would go to high school, the current population of the 8h, 9th, 10th and 11th grades for next year’s high school population, and the current percentage of high school students taking the bus to estimate how many would require bus transportation.
In the event of Pilgrim closing, O’Haire suggested students in the Norwood and Holliman school areas go to Toll Gate and the students in the remaining four Pilgrim feeder school areas go to Vets.
“I came up with the need for 17 buses to transport [would-be Pilgrim] students to Toll Gate and Vets,” O’Hare continued. “Six would be going to Toll Gate for 318 students and 11 would be going to vets for 644 students.”
Since O’Haire currently uses only six buses to transport 22 percent of Pilgrim’s students to school, he would need to request just over $749,000 for 11 additional busses at next year’s predicted cost of $68,159 per bus. He also added the need for one additional special education bus as a precaution.
The second half of the Pilgrim closing scenario would be the need to transport Aldrich and Gorton students to Pilgrim for junior high.
“It would be a totaling of 14 buses,” said O’Haire.
Based on current bus availability, O’Haire would have 11 of those 14 already, so he calculated the need for an additional three to bring students to a reopened Pilgrim; he also recommended one additional special education bus be budgeted for.
Moving on, O’Haire presented the same information in the event of Vets closing and becoming a junior high. O’Haire suggested students in the Lippitt Elementary and Park Elementary areas attend Toll Gate because those are the closest to current Toll Gate feeder schools. Students in the areas of the remaining three Vets feeders would attend Pilgrim.
“We need a total of 16 buses to move the 901 students [who would be at Vets to Toll Gate and Pilgrim]. We’ve got seven buses available, meaning we need an additional nine buses to the tune of 613,000 and change plus the extra 84,000 and change for the extra special ed bus,” said O’Haire.
O’Haire then looked at the Aldrich and Gorton students being housed at a potential Vets Junior High and determined the need to be the same.
“The demand for Aldrich and Gorton being housed at Vets would be similar or equal to the demand of Aldrich and Gorton being housed at Pilgrim. It would still require three additional large buses and the recommendation for one more special ed bus,” said O’Haire.
Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino specifically asked O’Haire about the affect to transportation with special education students, and O’Haire said he would use all existing special education buses but added one into each of his projections as a precaution.
“I don’t see a huge effect on special ed [buses],” said O’Haire. “I recommend putting one in the budget and seeing what we can do.” O’Haire also said which feeder schools go to which school could be changed if the committee so chooses.
Ferrucci’s fiscal impact of consolidation explained a breakdown of “significant pieces” that would be impacted by the potential closure of secondary schools.
According to Ferrucci, if consolidation were to occur with either Vets or Pilgrim becoming a junior high and Gorton and Aldrich closing, the School Department could expect annual savings of $470,034 in operating costs (electricity, heating, supplies), $4,613,000 in staffing, and $360,000 by consolidating extra-curricular activities and reducing food service debt.
Ferrucci explained that he refers to the savings as annual because if the current funding level remains constant, those are costs that would no longer need to be covered each year.
He also pointed out that while a total consolidation of 35 certified staff members (teachers and administrators) and 20 non-certified staff members (clerks, secretaries, custodians) is what he calculated based on the needs of the student population, that number of cuts would not be allowed in one year due to contracts.
Ferrucci also made note of cost avoidance for the School Department by no longer needing to do fire code upgrades at Aldrich and Gorton. In total (fire code bonding and other capital improvements bonding), the district would not need to endure future costs of $10,014,711, which would be broken up into annual payments of $801,120 for up to 20 years.
Following O’Haire and Ferrucci’s reports, the committee had a brief discussion comparing Vets to Pilgrim. Looking specifically at special education students, it was repeatedly brought up that Pilgrim hosts the majority of the city’s special needs students, as well as one of the central kitchens for the surrounding schools.
The importance of location also came up because Toll Gate is located in the southern part of the city, Pilgrim in the north and Vets with easy access from north and south.
“I think location is an important part of this. I think looking at transporting kids to the Career Center is important. I think when you look at Toll Gate being south, I look at what’s north in the city. And north in the city is Pilgrim,” said D’Agostino.
He added the fact that Vets is easily accessible from north and south, and the proximity of a school to I-95 for students who work out of the city should also be considered.
Then the discussion turned to the committee’s response to the conditions of the three buildings they toured.
“Pilgrim, in my opinion, is the building that needs the most help,” said Stephanie Van Patten, a committee member. “And I’m afraid if we keep it open as the high school it’s not going to get the renovations it needs.”
D’Agostino went a step further, pointing out that he wasn’t happy with the quality of any of the three high schools.
The committee appeared to be in agreement that they would be unable to rank the buildings because, as Nancy Plumb put it, none of the three would be considered “state-of-the-art.”
“I think it’s glaring that there needs to be repairs because I think they’re all in the same shape. Vets needs the same type of things as Pilgrim does,” said D’Agostino.
The conversation continued with each member bringing up problems they noticed, mostly in Vets and Pilgrim, such as asthma acting up, cleanliness in the auditorium and the quality of ceilings.
“It was disturbing to see the quality of these buildings,” said Jacqueline Harris-Connors, who scheduled her own individual tours of each high school because she could not make the group ones. “This is not a poor city. There’s a lot of money that flows into the system, and I want to know why it is these buildings that have been allowed to become so run down.”
While Van Patten believed Pilgrim to be in the worst shape cosmetically, D’Agostino pointed out that Vets might benefit the most for a yearlong closure and becoming the junior high because it needs a new roof, new elevator and new boiler.
“Whatever building we chose, whether it be Pilgrim or Vets, I want that building, we all want that building, to be in excellent shape when those junior high students walk into that building they feel like they are in a new building,” said D’Agostino.
A possible timeline of consolidation would have the high school closing in 2014 and reopening as a junior high the following year when Aldrich and Gorton close.
Before the conclusion of the meeting, D’Agostino asked if the committee members were prepared to say which school they felt should be closed. While some members seemed prepared to make a choice, the ultimate decision was to digest the transportation and financial reports, think about the discussion of the buildings, and come up with any final questions for the administrators to address for their next meeting.